Is there anything left to discover? Have the most important temples, tombs, pyramids, cities, and civilizations been found?
After centuries of archaeological finds, it's a common sentiment that little remains to be discovered. "I was born too soon to explore the cosmos and too late to explore the Earth," is a popular refrain on the Internet.
I would argue that the greatest age of discovery is happening right now. And the real fun is just about to begin.
Machu Picchu was not known to the outside world until 1911, but what lost cities are awaiting discovery today? An archaeologist in Kurdistan has announced that Musasir might have finally been located. This near-mythical city is thought to be the origin of the temple design made famous by Athens' Parthenon and copied on courthouses and state buildings around the world, including the U.S. Capitol.
On the other side of the world, three ancient Mayan cities were recently discovered and researchers say they think there are more are in the surrounding area.
Decades of underwater research have provided us with a good understanding of our maritime past. But there has been one looming gap: ancient warships.
Epic tales of naval engagements fill the ancient histories, but evidence has been elusive. No battle site has ever been located and only three full-sized warship rams have been found in the entire Mediterranean. That is, until now.
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After years of searching, the site of the Battle of the Egadi Islands was discovered off the coast of Sicily, the Soprintendenza del Mare and RPM Nautical Foundation announced in May. The site has yielded eleven warship rams, as well as armament and amphoras that were meant to resupply Hamilcar Barca's forces, Hannibal's father.
Actual warship remains are re-writing everything scholars assumed about ancient naval warfare. How important was this battle? It was the decisive climax to the First Punic War and it is no stretch to say this victory was the first step on Rome's path to becoming an empire. This is not simply among the great underwater discoveries of our time; it is one of the most significant archaeological finds of all time.
A small village in Greece might be home to the greatest discovery of the new century. If you haven't been watching for news from Amphipolis, you should be. The largest ancient tomb ever found in Greece has been dated to the period of Alexander the Great.
A 16-foot lion statue sits atop the tomb and two sphinxes guard an entrance bricked up with granite blocks weighing a ton each. As the excavation progresses, archaeologists have uncovered two incredible female caryatid statues, mosaic floors and three chambers.
Who is buried inside? No one knows, but everyone has a theory as archaeologists dig further inside every day.
The list from the last few years goes on and on and includes Lawrence of Arabia's desert camp; perfectly preserved Black Sea and Baltic shipwrecks, some with masts still standing; Captain Kidd's and Blackbeard's shipwrecks; and a Gate to Hell in Turkey complete with animals that died from getting too close.
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Pavlopetri was not identified as the world's oldest sunken city until 2008. Seventeen new pyramids were discovered in Egypt in 2011 alone, using infrared satellite technology, while a previously unknown pharaoh named Woseribre Senebkay and the necropolis of his dynasty were found earlier this year.
These are not minor discoveries, but finds that are rewriting what we know of history.
What sorts of things might we discover in the near future? A brief list might include a Viking ship in North America, the lost Roanoke colony in Virginia or the tomb of Alexander the Great. Remember, while the terracotta army has been excavated, the tomb of China's First Emperor has yet to be touched.
These are things we can imagine because we know about them from historical texts. But the most amazing discoveries will likely be ones we cannot even consider because they predate writing.
Written history covers less than a percent of human time on Earth. Even from well-documented periods, such as the Roman Empire, we know very little about the Illyrians or Celtic Britain. These prominent cultures stood up to Rome, but are incorrectly assumed to be minor because we lack their histories.
We have history-based bias, but there are many unrecorded conquerors, battles and Romeo and Juliets in the vastness of prehistory whose stories are waiting to be told. Prehistoric finds like Hoyo Negro's earliest American (found 2010), the Hobbit-like species Homo floresiensis (found 2003), and insight into the first artists (2013) suggest the best stories may await discovery.
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New technologies are revolutionizing how archaeologists search for sites. Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are plying the oceans, while satellites and drones are sweeping the Earth's surface. Archaeologists are using elemental and molecular means, even marine biology, to locate sites. Crowd-sourcing platforms like MicroPasts are engaging the multitudes on the Internet to conduct research. Advances in technology are allowing us to search wider and more effectively, bring new and unexpected discoveries.
From Mayan cities in the jungle to warships on the seafloor, today's discoveries are groundbreaking. The world may be mapped and labeled, but there is a lot left to explore. There is every reason to think that people in the future will label this the Greatest Age of Discovery.
Interested in learning more about exploration and discoveries in the world's oceans? Check out the free online course Shipwrecks and Submerged Worlds, beginning Oct. 6, 2014.